Everybody’s a Player
Game designer Jessica Creane hosts a Tea Party at the End of the World
I was in Seattle with my daughter over Thanksgiving, looking at colleges for next year (she’s interested in studying theatre, so we also saw an excellent production of Little Women at the Seattle Met). Mostly we were just poking around independent bookstores, drinking coffee, and thrifting. I asked her if she could see herself living in such an urban city. She gestured up toward the skyscrapers and said “these make me feel weird. Those brick buildings over there are okay, they are like, real, but these glass and steel ones make me feel like I’m already in the apocalypse.”
Tell me more about that, asks her climate-change education-researcher mother. She says, “it’s like I see them all blown up already, and empty.”
She’s seeing a scene from a cli fi movie. She’s in the precarious opening of the film where the audience knows that the shit’s about to hit the fan but the protagonist thinks she’s grabbing a latte on her morning run (thinking here of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, as well as my discussion with climate film historian Michael Svoboda, “Fiction and Film in the Hothouse”).
It’s just a normal pleasant afternoon, but with a backdrop of doom. I notice that it takes lot of effort for my daughter to maintain the right balance of nonchalance about her hopes for the future.
I’ve been thinking a lot about ecotheologian Michael Dowd, who passed away suddenly, in October. He referred to hope as “love-in-action.” I met Michael Dowd through the Gaian Way, and he referred to the living earth as Gaia, but he spelled it like this, which I thought was perfect.
The large community of people he touched are still reeling from this loss, while also rallying to carry forward Michael’s lifework. Michael Dowd was prolific, his messaging consistent. He told only truths, and only with love.
I see Postdoom as a state of awareness that comes from accepting apocalypses, both current and to come. The whole doomers vs. hopium thing is a false dichotomy, because you can absolutely talk about doom — tipping points and planetary boundaries and points of no return — and absolutely feel hope, (or love-in-action). Because you know more about what to do, and because we are still here right now. This is the great gift that Michael Dowd left to all of us working in climate education. He lived it.
I was honored to be interviewed by Michael Dowd for the Post-doom Conversations (see conversation below). He was interested in getting the perspectives of an educator and talking about the role of higher education. We talked about what a Postdoom University would be like — a place of learning that looks at the planetary predicament squarely and then decides to try, rather than deny.
We spoke with a rare, heartfelt curiosity. Michael opened a space for me to talk about how experiencing the keening, life-destroying, very personal grief of a beloved’s suicide opened me more to being able to really feel the more amorphous, collective, environmental grief. It was a connection I had never thought about, but it has come up several times since.
It came up right away in my interview with Jessica Creane, this relationship between personal grief and eco grief. In fact, it’s built in to her brilliant creation: Tea Party at the End of the World. “It can be lowercase or uppercase,” she said, “the end of something small in our lives or the uppercase T, upper case E. The End of The World.”
Tea Party at the End of the World is immersive, and get this — it’s a game. What makes is a game is that there are no observers: everybody is a player. That’s seems to be a mantra of the game design community. I like it a lot.
Jessica describes the game,
I serve half a dozen teas over the course of the experience. We talk about this beautiful old tradition of tea and these things that have come from the ground, have experienced heating and cooling and packing. And as we do that, we play a weird series of made-up parlor games that ask us to question our reality and take a look at what ‘the end’ means to us.
“Everyone has the opportunity but is never pushed into exploring what it means to think about our last day on Earth, really looking at things like:
What would you want your last memories of this world to be?
What is a question that haunts you?
As we walk this earth, what are we actually sitting with?
I am sure Michael Dowd would have loved talking with Jessica Creane!
The tea party idea came out of an Arctic Circle expeditionary residency program for artists and scientists and educators. They are out on a boat listening to glaciers calve. Just observing what’s happening, and thinking about how to translate what they experience and feel. She said,
We tend towards isolation with these thoughts, when actually looking at these things together, being playful about it and being in community, could strengthen our human bond in a way that lets us tackle challenges together — namely, climate change.
She said that the small e of personal grief and the big E of climate grief are both in the same energy body. “I can talk about my father’s death; I can relate to that and that helps me relate to the big E.”
“This is a training ground,” she said. “This is a space in which we get to practice opening up and being with each other in a way that doesn’t hit the nail right on the head. That lets us come around sort of sideways at it to start with community and from there start to look at the things that are normally in the shadows of our lives.”
Jessica started out with an MFA and teaching theatre. She loved teaching, but didn’t know she’d be teaching game design. “I didn’t know I was a game designer,” she laughs, “I didn’t know game design was a thing. I was teaching, essentially how to help people feel that moments matter. That’s what a lot of theater does is to help to hone in on a moment and show it in context and in sequence and have us feel something about it that we wouldn’t otherwise have had the time or the space or the community to have a lens on.”
At the end of her degree she convinced a dean to let her take a class on the history of game design. That class changed her view of the world with the idea that everybody is a player. “It was the last piece of the puzzle that slipped into place for me being able to really feel my agency as a creator, and someone who could make change in the world.”
In theater, she explains, “there are people who are players and actors and there are others who are not. They are observers of the action. But with games, everybody’s a part of it.
You can’t sit back. And so that was kind of like “click” moment for me. That’s when I started getting into game design and really thinking about how we bring friends and strangers and people with really disparate ideas together to think playfully about problems.
She credits a professor, Adam Nash, who encouraged her. “He took a look at the things I was designing and he was like, these are really weird, really weird. You should definitely keep doing it.”
She later gave a lightning talk at a game community event in Philadelphia, where Rob Lloyd, who runs the game program at local Drexel College, was in the audience. He invited Jessica to teach at Drexel, which is how she comes to be a climate change educator teaching game theory.
This idea that everybody is a player is so relevant to higher education. We know that teaching and learning must be more participatory, transdisciplinary, action-oriented, self-designed, multigenerational, democratic. (This reminds me of an upcoming interview with Seth Feary about Climate Fresk, a participatory workshop — a game, really — and how we can integrate ideas like Fresk into higher education.)
Jessica said, “It’s really about agency, the ability to make meaningful choices.”
She shared an example of agency:
My teacher gave this example of agency: he had a young kid who was about 4 years old and so he was talking about when his kid gets dressed for school and he’d just like hold up 2 shirts and say “red shirt or blue shirt” and the kid is like, oh my god, agency. I get to pick what shirt I wear. Then they’re really excited about the choice they’ve made. But really, the only thing that matters to my friend is that his kid puts a shirt on. He’s getting a win no matter what. So the choice in there is minimal. However, if you were to be like, all right, kid, go upstairs and dress yourself for school. He come down in like a Batman cape, one rain boot, one sandal and a tutu, right? Then we’d have some really beautiful chaos. And so for me, that second choice is high agency. That’s really asking us to look at all of these possibilities and not actually be fitting into structures that already exist.
There have been some attempts to build in more student agency to higher education, like self-designed curricular pathways and interdisclipinary degree programs, or teaching ideas like specifications grading, also known as ungrading. I like these ideas, but they are all pretty classic red shirt / blue shirt.
Jessica said, “Individuals can’t do that much, really, about climate change. There’s a really understandable apathy problem with individual agency. But collective agency requires individuals to engage, and agency is the antidote to despair and apathy.”
In collective agency, everyone is a player. She says,
“The more specific we are and the things that we make, the more likely we are to actually reach people, have them feel seen, heard, and activated in a way that they’re going to use their agency to do something else.”
I’m writing this essay and thinking about my teenaged daughter and the doomscape, so I asked Jessica her assessment of youth and climate anxiety.
“What I see a lot of is, like, resignation. And I have definitely seen a change in the last few years from that resignation feeling disastrous and guilt ridden to becoming a little bit of a calmer resignation, a little bit more acceptance of what’s coming. And there’s a world in which that that can feel devastating, but I am choosing not to see it that way, because I think when we’re in distress mode, we don’t make great choices or we don’t make any choices and we sort of like go into a default mode.”
But from a space of not feeling panicked or guilty, we actually have the ability to do something with our time and with our energy because it’s not going into that void. People exist on this spectrum at all times, right? There are times when I am devastated and there are times when I am hopeful. We’re all everything, all the time.”
Ever attuned to coincidences and omens, I found it significant that a copy of Rob Hopkins’ book, What is to What if : Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create, crossed my path as I was pondering this essay. It was in a thrift store basement for a dollar, and I love it when the Universe sends me books that way! The book is all about how we need play to develop imagination, and how we need imagination to create the change we need to be in the world. In the book, and his companion blog he interviews a hundred people about creativity and imagination and ideas. He talks a lot about Transition Towns (which are a bigger thing in Europe), and improv, and the work of the late David Fleming.
He describes a participant in a Transition Town activity who had the experience of participating in an improv exercise and then, like a year later, something just like it it actually came into being, and she said:
“I deeply felt that everything is possible, that from nothing, and with little, by playing, we understood that it is OK to make your dreams into reality. You open the road to what’s possible by dreaming” (32).
You open the road to what’s possible by dreaming.
Jessica thinks it possible to accept “this is the way the world is” without it feeling catastrophic. “Doesn’t mean that it isn’t, but we don’t we don’t feel it in a way that it’s immediate. We have a little bit of a better sense of time now to know that things take a while at times and other things are going to happen faster and so with that sort of embodied knowledge. We can start to make different kinds of choices. And to give a lot of thought to what it means to feel like the world is ending. The way that we experience this, the kind of community that we’re in when we’re experiencing those things is very different.
She said, “With personal grief, if you don’t completely isolate yourself, there’s usually somebody else (or hundreds in the case of Michael Dowd) who knew that person too. And so, there’s somebody else who is grieving with you and who we can relate to in those moments. There’s a real community. There’s like, you know, you can share things in a way and there’s more social norm around, an acknowledgement that grief is happening and that it is it is a different reality. We don’t see that as much with climate grief. And so for me, I think it’s a really big question around like, communally, how are we showing up for each other in these moments?”
This makes me think of the book, Hospicing Modernity, which also has elements of game and communal engagement — let’s just say it’s not a book to read alone. For me, the deep lesson of Hospicing Modernity was that we can’t create a future until we allow, or at least accept, The End.
I buy my daughter some bracelets and a dress at the thrift store. The dress is vintage, kind of Cyndi Lauper-like with a big floppy bow on the hip. She buys some CDs: the Cowboy Junkies, Smashing Pumpkins, and Jane’s Addiction. (She also bought three paperbacks: The Collected Works of Virgil, The Oxbow Incident (?), and Trans Girl Suicide Museum by Hanna Boer.) I buy the Rob Hopkins book and some 80s jogging pants.
The mashup of artifacts from different eras is somehow joyful, and then we get pizza.
Jessica Creane advised that “We need to normalize the fact that today I’m feeling the high catastrophe. And tomorrow I might not be feeling that way and all of that is fine. We don’t need to be the same exact person day to day to get something done. We can move through all of our feelings and have space and start to cycle through action, and deep emotion, and really start to acknowledge these things as they happen rather than pretending they’re not happening. More than anything, it’s an opportunity for us to acknowledge and process different kinds of grief differently now than we’ve done before.”
“There are times when I am devastated and there are times when I am hopeful. We’re all everything, all the time.” — Jessica Creane
Krista Hiser: Post-doom with Michael Dowd